Fun, Fun, Fun
Yamaha QY20 Music Sequencer
"Is that a QY20 in your pocket, or are you just pleased to see me?" Paul Ireson explains why a QY20 will be filling his stocking this Christmas.
Dear Santa, I've changed my mind. Forget all that stuff about Vanessa Paradis and the economy six-pack of baby oil. (I mean, unless you're really sure you can swing it...) I want a Yamaha QY20.
Yamaha's QY10 'Walkstation' was a unique product, cramming into a box the size of a VHS video cassette an 8-part multi-timbral synth with sampled instrument and drum sounds, plus an 8-track sequencer. You could stick it in the back pocket of your jeans, compose a tune on the bus, and even dump the song into your sequencer when you got home. I bought one, and was very happy with it.
I was particularly excited, therefore, to hear about the new QY20, which promised to improve on the QY10 in just about every way possible. Does it? Yes. In a nutshell, it does what the QY10 does, only better, and has wider applications. It is easier to use, and has more sounds, of much higher quality — on a par, in fact, with modules such as the TG100 and Sound Canvas. You could buy this and use it as another expander, which is not the case with the QY10. The sequencer is considerably better, in the sense that it is easier to construct Songs from Patterns, there are more and better preset Patterns, and there's more memory space for user Patterns and Songs. Better still, the 1-octave monophonic mini rubber keyboard has been replaced by a two-and-a-half-octave polyphonic mini rubber keyboard, which makes improvising your way into a song a whole lot easier than before. The only penalty you pay for all these extras is a small increase in depth — I can no longer quite squeeze the unit into the back pocket of my 501s — and a more significant increase in price. The QY20 will set you back £399. Whilst that's considerably more than the QY10's £249, the improvements are worth it, I feel.
If you've never used or heard of the QY10, you might be a bit confused, so let's backtrack and look at just exactly what the QY20 is. It describes itself as a Music Sequencer, and sure enough there's an 8-track sequencer with a 28,000 note memory on board. There's more to it than that, however. Incorporating, as it does, a multi-timbral sound source, and a means of entering music into the sequencer, the QY20 is a true workstation — and a pocket-sized, battery-powered (six AA cells; you can also use an optional PSU) one at that. Come to think of it, the QY20 is way too much fun to be called a Workstation: Playstation is nearer the mark.
Secondly, it is a usable expander. The 100 sampled AWM sounds, whilst hardly remarkable, are of good enough quality to stand comparison with other budget units. There's nothing that will blow you away, but you could use the drum and instrument sounds on a record and no-one would be any the wiser.
Thirdly, it's an auto-accompaniment device. You can use the preset Patterns to provide backing in any of a range of musical styles, and transpose the backing in real time. 24 different chord types are supported. I can see solo keyboard players working the clubs taking a QY20 along with them.
Just to finish covering the basic ground, there are two audio output sockets, for headphones and line out, both on stereo minijacks, and MIDI In and Out sockets. Headphone volume is slightly louder than I remember on the QY10, though I wasn't able to do a side-by-side comparison (I sold my '10 as soon as I heard about the '20).
As a workstation, the QY20 has an 8-track sequencer with an 8-part multi-timbral sound module to match. The eight tracks are called Tracks 1-4 (Sequencer tracks) and Chord 1, Chord 2, Bass and Drums (Accompaniment tracks), reflecting the way in which the sequencer operates: you assemble songs by first stringing together Patterns, then recording a further 4 tracks on top.
There are three modes of operation on the QY20: Voice, Pattern, and Song. In Voice mode you assign sounds to the eight tracks, via a rather attractive graphic screen that even includes graphic faders and pan-pots. These are not just for show, and you can set volume levels and pan positions for all tracks. In Pattern mode you can record and play back 4-track Patterns, consisting of drums, bass, and two other instrument parts, using the full range of the QY20's sounds, and in Song mode you string these together and overdub to produce complete arrangements.
The 100 preset Patterns, from one to four bars in length, all come with six variations — Intro, Normal, Variation, Fill 1, Fill 2, and Ending — so there are actually 600 presets in all, and there's memory capacity for a further 100 user Patterns. Note that user Patterns only come in packs of one — you can't program six variations in the same manner as preset Patterns.
As a Pattern plays back, you can select in real time what Pattern is going to play next, and which of the six variations will be played. You can also transpose it in real time. All these changes are achieved via a fairly minimal user interface. You can cursor your way around the excellent LCD screen, and depending on what field is highlighted you use either the +/- buttons or the mini-keyboard to enter values. So, selecting a new pattern would be done with the +/- buttons, while transposing is achieved with the mini-keyboard (press a key in the bottom octave to select a root note, then a higher note to select a chord type from one of 24 available, and hit Enter to impose the key change). If the cursor is not on a field that uses the mini-keyboard for data entry, then the keyboard simply plays whatever track was last selected for editing in Voice mode, letting you play along. Besides being able to transpose the backing to follow any of the QY20's 25 chord types (m7, 7sus4, add9 and so on), added flexibility is provided by the facility to define the root note for the bass accompaniment separately to the root for the chord.
As you play a few of the Patterns on the QY20, you're struck at first by how much better they are than the QY10's complement. The next thing that hits you, however, is that some of them really are very familiar — straight copies of the basic backing for assorted well known hits have been included. Just to save you searching, try number 35 for instant 'Every Breath You Take' (the pattern's called 'Rozza' — nice to see programmers with a sense of humour), number 42 for 'Maneater' ('Troll' as it is here), 48 ('Judge') for a cracking 'Slave To The Rhythm' backing, and 36 ('Faces') for 'Once In A Lifetime'. Listening to these should sell more QY20s than any number of rave reviews.
Recording your own Patterns is pretty straightforward, and you can use either step-time or real-time note entry. Pattern editing 'Jobs' allow you to copy Patterns (handy for lifting parts from the preset Patterns, some of which contain guitar strumming, for example, that realistically you will just not be able to programme via the mini-keyboard), quantise, transpose, and modify velocity and gate times. Further editing can be achieved via an event list — tedious, but it gives you a lot of control.
As on the QY10, you build Songs by stringing together Patterns to fill up the first four sequencer tracks, and then recording 'tape machine style' on the four remaining tracks. One major change, however, is that you can record much more in real time. Although you can use step-time programming to enter pattern numbers, variations, and transpositions, you can also record all these 'on the fly', which makes for more intuitive operation — particularly as it follows very closely the way in which you'll probably rough out a song in Pattern mode, listening to how different Patterns sound end-to-end, transposing them as you go.
Here's how it works... Enter Song mode; hit Record to enter 'record ready'; select real-time record; select Pattern record; cursor to the Pattern number field and +/- your way to the first pattern you need; select a variation; now hit Play to start recording. After a 2-bar count-in, the Pattern you selected will start playing, and you can select other patterns with the +/- buttons. You can then use a second pass to 'overdub' your choice of variations on the Patterns that you've just programmed, and use another pass to record chord changes. Note that you can use repeats to extend sections of your backing, and you also have the flexibility to nest repeats within one another.
Finally, you record over the backing so created on the four remaining sequencer tracks. The availability of a polyphonic keyboard really transforms this part of the programming process — whereas on the QY10, you were essentially limited to recording monophonic lines, or building up polyphonic parts by combining monophonic ones, here you can actually play chords in real time. Of course, a mini rubber keyboard pales in comparison with the cheapest and nastiest of 'proper' keyboards, but you have to put up with these things if you want true portability!
As with patterns, there are editing Jobs to handle 'macro' tasks like mixing, copying, quantising and so-on. As with Patterns, you can use an event list to edit the four Sequencer tracks in detail, The insert mode is particularly useful, because you can enter data such as pitch bend, pan and volume. Dealing with pitch bend data in this way is pretty fiddly — more trouble than it's worth, to me — but the ability to enter volume data and perform basic mixing on your tracks is very welcome. The fact that, if you switch to Voice mode during Song playback, you'll see the faders moving up and down to follow your volume moves, is a bonus!
The QY20's 100 preset, totally non-editable AWM sounds bear comparison to those on other cheap expanders. If you're after a Sound Canvas or a TG100 for their particular features the QY20 can't really compete, but it's not that disimilar in sound. You also get the same range of presets, from pianos, organs and guitars, through real and synth basses, pads, to strings, brass, woodwind and so on. There are also six drum kits. The Drum track can only have a drum kit assigned to it, whilst all other seven QY20 tracks can use any of the 100 instrument sounds, or one of the kits. The kits, with 27 sounds in each, use 100 drum samples between them. The same 'basic' sound set crops up over and over, but the kicks, snares and toms ring the changes. I was very impressed by the quality of these sounds, which certainly bely the size of the box that produced them. They're well-chosen too, with kit and percussion sounds suited to pop, rock, dance and more.
Surprisingly enough, the QY20 offers a level of GM compatibility. It doesn't take long to work out that, with only 100 instrument sounds, it can hardly be a true GM module. However, you can switch the QY20 into 'GM' mode, whereby it becomes 16-part multi-timbral via MIDI (drums on channel 10), and incoming program changes from 1-128 are remapped to various of the QY20's 100 instruments to approximate to GM performance — so the same QY20 sound may be selected by up to four different program changes, in some cases.
While we're on the subject of controlling the QY20 via MIDI, you may as well know that it responds to velocity, pitch bend and modulation wheel data, and also the expression controller. The effect of the latter seems to be to control both volume and attack of a sound — as you increase expression values, which you can insert into sequencer tracks in the same way as volume data, the volume of the sound increases from nothing up to full, and a soft attack gives way to the normal envelope. You can program the QY20's sequencer from an external keyboard, rather than use its own mini rubber device, with its obvious advantages. The QY20's tracks are assigned to channels 1-7, with drums on 10.
Whilst you can hear the loops come in quite early on the piano samples, it's impressive enough to have clean, usable piano samples in a box this size. Polyphony is 28 notes in most cases, although many voices actually use two oscillators, and therefore reduce polyphony. Generally, all the basic bread and butter sounds use only one oscillator, and therefore will allow full 28-note polyphony. However, having given you 'Clean Gtr 1', the QY20 also offers 'Clean Gtr 2' and 'Clean Gtr 3', both of which use two oscillators to provide a richer, slightly chorused stereo sound. This is a good arrangement — where polyphony is at a premium, you can choose a simple one-oscillator sound, or use a two-oscillator sound in a sparser arrangement. Most of the pad sounds also use two oscillators to achieve a useful degree of richness — the string and vocal pads are far better than I expected to hear from the QY20.
I'm happy to say that I know very little about auto-accompaniment — my idea of hell would be reincarnation as a home organ sales rep. However, the QY20 does it, and it does it like this... In Pattern playback mode, as I've already explained, you can switch from style to style, play variations, transpose the current pattern, and of course jam along on top. This is basic, unremarkable, and it works. The feature that I was rather taken with was the ABC facility — this stands for 'Auto Bass Chords', and it allows you to transpose a Pattern, in real time, by simply playing the chord (three or four notes) that you want the backing to follow. You can use either the QY20's keyboard, or more usefully an external MIDI controller. You can program a keyboard range to control the ABC function, and notes outside this range will play, as usual, the QY20 track on whatever MIDI channel the keyboard is transmitting.
For those who don't think in terms of A flat m7(11) chords, this is a real boon — and it also provides a little music education, as the chord name appears on the QY20's LCD as soon as it recognises it. Even if you're a little too techno-snobbish to be really sold on the potential uses of playing along with the QY20's preset Patterns, writing your own Patterns and transposing them in real time should win you over. Anyone who remembers using analogue monosynths with step time sequencers that allowed you to enter a simple sequence and transpose it in real time from the keyboard will testify that this is a very useful writing technique. (When you write Patterns, by the way, stick to the notes of a C major scale if you want them to sound any good when transposed.)
The review sample of the QY20, having rung my bell, flipped my switches, and generally tickled my fancy, has found a comfortable home — wherever I happen to be at the time. Frankly, I think you'd have to be brain dead not to see the appeal of the QY20. But is £399 too much?
Though it's more expensive than the QY10, it's both a far more powerful and a rather different machine, and I think it can justify the £150 price difference. It certainly means that this is no casual purchase, no impulse buy for someone who thinks it might be fun to play with every now and again; but those who do buy a QY20 will find it a more useful, more rewarding, and more productive box than the QY10. The increasing emphasis on real-time programming, allowing you to put songs together 'on the fly', is very welcome, and makes the '20 a much more intuitive tool than the '10.
I think the clincher, however, is the fact that the QY20 can fill a useful role in a full MIDI setup, as well as offering a powerful music on the move capability. You'll be able to use its drum sounds and some of the instruments in the mix — most people find that another expander doesn't go amiss — and the auto-accompaniment side of the unit, particularly if you're using the ABC facility via MIDI, is a useful songwriting device.
The only real frustration I found with the QY20 was that because it offers so much more than the '10, you notice the absence of a data entry dial or slider all the more. Also, the numeric keypad has gone, which makes selecting patterns more tedious — you have to scroll through sequentially each time, rather than keying a number in directly. These are minor gripes, however. Yamaha have obviously put a good deal of effort into improving on the QY10. They've done a fine job, and this little beauty wins my full approval.
£399 inc VAT.
Yamaha-Kemble Music, (Contact Details).
Review by Paul Ireson
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!